Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Musings: The Importance of UNESCO

UNESCO is chartered with huge responsibilities, but shackled with a small budget -- on the order of US$300 million per year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has lead responsibilities in the United Nations system for there areas, and also for communications and information.

Compare UNESCO's budget for its world wide responsibilities with some U.S. entities. My county's school system, for example, has an operating budget of some $2 billion per year plus an investment budget of some $230 million a year. The U.S. Federal Government spends $116 billion per year on research and development, and of course that is only part of what is spent on R&D in the country, and the expenditures on science include not only research and development but many other scientific functions as well. The global market value of cultural and creative industries (producing and distributing such goods and services such as books, CDs, videogames and sculptures) has been estimated at US$ 1.3 trillion and is rapidly expanding; between 1994 and 2002, international trade in cultural goods increased from US$38 billion to US$60 billion. The United States -- with a population of over 400 million, and per capita GDP of $43,500 -- spent 8.8 percent of GDP on information and communications technology in 2005.
As the above graph shows, the number of intergovernmental organizations exploded in the last half of the 20th century. UNESCO is now one of thousands of such organizations. We tend to lose track of the work and impacts of individual intergovernmental organizations in the mass of such organizations. So too, we tend to assume that these organizations with relatively small budgets also have relatively limited impact.

In the case of UNESCO, I would suggest that the impact has been quite significant:

The community of nations has embarked on an ambitious program to provide Education for All, and includes ambitious educational goals within the Millennium Development Goals. UNESCO's function over the years has been to keep international attention on education, and on the need to work to assure people's human rights to education. In the current situation, it has worked to help assure that educational statistics are comparable among countries, and provides forums where national governments have to defend their educational performance before both their own citizens and other nations. It is likely that global educational achievements are much greater than they would be had there not been a United Nations body to do that which UNESCO does in education.
In its early years, UNESCO's influence was critically important in the creation of the International Center for Theoretical Physics and the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN); these organizations have helped both to illuminate the nature of the universe and to spread modern physics worldwide. The role of CERN in the creation of the World Wide Web might alone justify UNESCO's existence.

The role of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Science Committees has been quite important. In oceanography, UNESCO has helped the scientific community to work in ways transcending national borders, and is working to develop tsunami warning systems to serve all of the world at risk from tsunami disasters. The hydrology program is allowing collaborative work to characterize water resources, and helping to create a knowledge base that can be trusted in negotiation on control and allocation of water resources. The Man in the Biosphere program has resulted in a collaborative structure of hundreds of bioreserves, where mankind is learning how to protect the biospere.
UNESCO's World Heritage Center has recognized more than 800 natural and cultural sites that are so important that they can be fairly called the heritage of all mankind. For each, the country in which the site is located has produced a detailed study of the site and a plan for its protection. Monitoring of the state of those sites encourages countries to work hard to achieve that protection, and over the history of the program only one country has withdrawn a single site from the network.

UNESCO has also catalized the creation of a body of international conventions that protect cultural property. Since the protection of Abu Simbelm UNESCO has provided a system that helps to protect cultural heritage during emergencies and wars, and helps to regulate international trade to prevent the trade in stolen artifacts and other cultural property.
UNESCO provides a mechanism for the United Nations to militate for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Every time a reporter is killed or imprisoned anywhere in the world, UNESCO protests and in so doing draws public attention to the event.

UNESCO also serves the United Nations system to promote libraries, to support a culture of the book, and more recently to promote the development of digital information serving the countries on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Why is UNESCO Important to the United States?
The points above are made to illustrate that UNESCO is important to the community of nations. To our State Department, which concerns itself primarily with security and economic issues, those services may not be convincing. Of course, U.S. foreign policy is also concerned with supporting the international humanitarian programs desired by the American public, and UNESCO's programs in Africa are prototypical of the multilateral approach to development assistance.

UNESCO was created to promote the international cooperation of national intellectual communities -- educatoral, scientistific and cultural. Indeed these communities in the United States value the contacts with their peers abroad, and expect the foreign policy apparatus of government to facilitate that networking. UNESCO is, in realizing these aspirations, an important element of foreign policy.

The State Department is increasingly recognizing the importance of "soft diplomacy" as a necessary complement to the "hard diplomacy" focusing on economic and military power. The United States needs to restore the confidence of other nations that this country will negotiate in good faith, with understanding and respect for the positions of others, and UNESCO provides a useful forum for that purpose.

As Archibald McLeish, the writer and Librarian of Congress, so memorably said in the negotiations leading up to the creation of UNESCO, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that we must begin to build the defenses of peace." Building those defenses is a long term process, and it is one best accomplished by the community of nations working together. Thus UNESCO, with its work with education and with the intellectual communities of the nations of the world, should be a significant element in U.S. soft diplomacy.

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